Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Look at our Founders' Beliefs in Light of Today's Politics

The Federalist Papers

On this 4th of July 2012, with nothing better to do on our national holiday, I have been reviewing selected statements from the writings of our founding fathers. Many of the statements in this post will leap off the page at you if you have your eyes wide open to the strife swirling about us in this election season. Do not become discouraged. Do not fear the future. Put into its proper perspective with a healthy dose of hindsight to guide our thinking, contention and opposition has forever been part of our political process, and will be forever as long as free men agree to disagree agreeably in the end.

George Washington
America is astoundingly resilient as these quotes will demonstrate, but first to a bit of history to put it all in a framework everyone can understand.

The Federalist Party was the first American political party, from the early 1790s to 1816, the era of the First Party System. George Washington abhorred the thoughts of his infant republic being torn asunder by partisan bickering, and remained independent, but the Federalists controlled the federal government until 1801.

Alexander Hamilton
The party was formed by Alexander Hamilton, who was committed to a fiscally sound and nationalistic government. The United States' only Federalist president was John Adams, who followed Washington as the second POTUS, who was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson.

The Federalists favored a strong national bank, tariffs, and good relations with Britain. Their political opponents, the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, denounced most of the Federalist policies, especially the bank, and vehemently criticized anyone who expressed remaining sympathy with the British monarchy. The Federalists won most of the major legislative battles in the 1790s. Their supporters were mostly in the nation's cities and in New England. The Democratic-Republicans, drew support from the rural South, and Jefferson eventually won the ugly and nasty election of 1800, defeating his lifelong friend John Adams, whose party never returned to power.

One thing leaps out as you read these excerpts, primarily from Hamilton and Madison: Despite their differences in the beliefs of their respective parties, both men believed the ultimate power of America rested with THE PEOPLE, and each gives us ample justification for taking steps to correct any form of tyranny that may arise. They wrote their essays along with Chief Justice John Jay to promote the ratification of the Constitution, and each in his writings gave us the intellectual arguments sufficient to change the government if it were ever to encroach upon our freedoms. As you read, don't be surprised if you learn how prophetic their writings have become!

John Adams
The Federalists left a lasting legacy of a strong new government with a sound financial base, and simultaneously Chief Justice John Marshall decisively shaped the Supreme Court policies for another three decades.

Today, the ongoing national debate about the relative powers of the federal and the state governments continues. As I write today  state governors, granted the ability to do so in the latest SCOTUS ruling on the Affordable Healthcare Act, are pushing back and refusing to implement the expansion of Medicaid under the law because of the enormous financial hardship it imposes. The more things change in America, the more they remain the same, it seems.

Thomas Jefferson
The infant republic survived those tumultuous years, and it is from their writings I was seeking inspiration this morning as we celebrate yet another American birthday. Share with me their prescient awareness of the very threats we face today:

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James Madison
Was, then, the American Revolution effected, was the American Confederacy formed, was the precious blood of thousands spilt, and the hard-earned substance of millions lavished, not that the people of America should enjoy peace, liberty, and safety, but that the governments of the individual States, that particular municipal establishments, might enjoy a certain extent of power and be arrayed with certain dignities and attributes of sovereignty? We have heard of the impious doctrine in the old world, that the people were made for kings, not kings for the people. Is the same doctrine to be revived in the new, in another shape that the solid happiness of the people is to be sacrificed to the views of political institutions of a different form? It is too early for politicians to presume on our forgetting that the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and that no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.  Madison, Number 45

The States will retain all pre-existing authorities which may not be exclusively delegated to the federal head; and that this exclusive delegation can only exist in one of three cases: where an exclusive authority is, in express terms, granted to the Union; or where a particular authority is granted to the Union and the exercise of a like authority is prohibited to the States; or where an authority is granted to a Union with which a similar authority in the States would be utterly incompatible.  Hamilton, Number 82

It has not a little contributed to the infirmities of the existing federal system that it never had a ratification by the PEOPLE. Resting on no better foundation than the consent of the several legislatures, it has been exposed to frequent and intricate questions concerning the validity of its powers, and has in some instances given birth to the enormous doctrine of a right of legislative repeal. Owing its ratification to the law of a State, it has been contended that the same authority might repeal the law by which it was ratified. However gross a heresy it may be to maintain that a party to a compact has a right to revoke that compact, the doctrine itself has had respectable advocates. The possibility of a question of this nature proves the necessity of laying the foundations of our national government deeper than in the mere sanction of delegated authority. The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.  Hamilton, Number 22

If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans and claim for their government the honorable title of republic. Madison, Number 39

The smallness of the army renders the natural strength of the community an overmatch for it; and the citizens, not habituated to look up to the military power for protection, or to submit to its oppressions, neither love nor fear the soldiery; they view them with a spirit of jealous acquiescence in a necessary evil and stand ready to resist a power which they suppose may be exerted to the prejudice of their rights.

The army under such circumstances may usefully aid the magistrate to suppress a small faction, or an occasional mob, or insurrection; but it will be unable to enforce encroachments against the united efforts of the great body of the people. Hamilton, Number 8

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government. Hamilton, Number 28

John Jay
It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it; nay, that absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for purposes and objects merely personal, such as a thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans. These and a variety of other motives, which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people. John Jay, Number 4

It is in vain to oppose constitutional barriers to the impulse of self-preservation. It is worse than in vain; because it plants in the Constitution itself necessary usurpations of power, every precedent of which is a germ of unnecessary and multiplied repetitions.  Madison, Number 41

Wilful abuses of a public authority, to the oppression of the subject, and every species of official extortion, are offenses against the government, for which the persons who commit them may be indicted and punished according to the circumstances of the case. Hamilton, Number 83

Do these principles, in fine, require that the powers of the general government should be limited, and that, beyond this limit, the States should be left in possession of their sovereignty and independence? We have seen that in the new government, as in the old, the general powers are limited; and that the States, in all unenumerated cases, are left in the enjoyment of their sovereign and independent jurisdiction. Madison, Number 40

. . . If it be asked what is to be the consequence, in case the Congress shall misconstrue this part of the Constitution and exercise powers not warranted by its true meaning. I answer the same as if they should misconstrue or enlarge any other power vested in them; as if the general power had been reduced to particulars, and any one of these were to be violated; the same, in short, as if the State legislatures should violate their respective constitutional authorities. In the first instance, the success of the usurpation will depend on the executive and judiciary departments, which are to expound and give effect to the legislative acts; and in the last resort a remedy must be obtained from the people, who can, by the election of more faithful representatives, annul the acts of the usurpers. The truth is that this ultimate redress may be more confided in against unconstitutional acts of the federal than of the State legislatures, for this plain reason that as every such act of the former will be an invasion of the rights of the latter, these will be ever ready to mark the innovation, to sound the alarm to the people, and to exert their local influence in effecting a change of federal representatives. There being no such intermediate body between the State legislatures and the people interested in watching the conduct of the former, violations of the State constitutions are more likely to remain unnoticed and unredressed. Madison, Number 44

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments in times of peace and security. As the former periods will probably bear a small proportion to the latter, the State governments will here enjoy another advantage over the federal government. The more adequate, indeed, the federal powers may be rendered to the national defense, the less frequent will be those scenes of danger which might favor their ascendancy over the governments of the particular States.

If the new Constitution be examined with accuracy and candor, it will be found that the change which it proposes consists much less in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union than in the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS. The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose and from which no apprehensions are entertained. Madison, Number 45

There is no position which depends on clearer principles than that every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this would be to affirm that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves; that men acting by virtue of powers may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid. Hamilton, Number 78

The House of Representatives is so constituted as to support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people. Before the sentiments impressed on their minds by the mode of their elevation can be effaced by the exercise of power, they will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised; there forever to remain unless a faithful discharge of their trust shall have established their title to a renewal of it.

I will add, as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny. If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and, above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America -- a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.

If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty. Madison, Number 57

For it is a truth, which the experience of all ages has attested, that the people are commonly most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those of whom they entertain the least suspicion. Hamilton, Number 25

I believe it may be laid down as a general rule that their confidence in and obedience to a government will commonly be proportioned to the goodness or badness of its administration. Hamilton, Number 27

It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system that the State governments will, in all possible contingencies, afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority. Hamilton, Number 28

It is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people. Madison, Number 52

No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable.  Madison, Number 62

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